The strategy of a Mexican billionaire to ‘Mexicanize’ his Los Angeles Major League Soccer team in order to attract the local Mexican fan base has resulted in what one former employee calls “ethnic cleansing” of the team.
A lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court by Cynthia Craig, former director of human resources for Chivas USA, alleges a culture of harassment and discrimination that ultimately caused her to leave the team.
Craig, who is African-American, says she was forced out of her job in July after, what her complaint alleges, was a prolonged period of harassment against her by team owner Jorge Vergara and Jose David, team president, because she was not Mexican nor could she speak Spanish.
On May 28, former youth academy coaches, Daniel Calichman and Teddy Chronopoulos, allege they were part of the team’s purging of non-Mexican players and coaches and were the first to file a discrimination suit based on national origin, ethnicity, and race against Chivas USA in Los Angeles Superior Court.
“In the U.S. and in California, sports franchises have to abide by the same rules and laws that all employers are required to follow, including the laws prohibiting employment discrimination,” said Greg Helmer, attorney for Chronopoulos and Calichman. “A sports franchise is not in any way exempt from those laws simply because it is in the sports business.”
Since assuming majority ownership of Chivas USA in August 2012, Jorge Vergara made it clear he wanted to replicate the model of his Guadalajara, Mexico, team of the same name to attract the large Mexican population in Los Angeles County, which, according to the 2012 census, numbers more than 4 million.
The Mexican Chivas team is regarded there with a reverence similar to the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys in the U.S.
Helmer says in the suit that, “Upon assuming sole ownership and control of Chivas USA, Mr. Vergara undertook a systemic effort to reverse what he perceived as the ‘Americanization’ of Chivas USA and to implement a discriminatory employment policy similar to the ethnocentric ‘Mexican only’ policy that exists at Chivas de Guadalajara.”
The suit claims that at a November staff meeting Vergara asked, in Spanish, who could speak Spanish. After identifying employees who did not speak Spanish, Vergara told them they would be fired.
“If you don’t speak Spanish, you can go work for the Galaxy, unless you speak Chinese, which is not even a language,” Vergara allegedly said.
Craig says in her suit that it felt like “ethnic cleansing.”
Soon after this infamous meeting, Chronopoulos said he met with newly appointed team President Jose David, who asked him to research the current youth academy players and coaches as well as player’s parents about their ethnicity and national origin.
Concerned about the request by David and the emerging writing on the wall, Chronopoulos and Calichman, filed a harassment and discrimination complaint to the Chivas USA Human Resources Department.
To their surprise, rather than a resolution, Chronopoulos and Calichman were sent packing three days later.
Spanish has since proliferated through the ranks all the way down to the youth teams associated with Chivas USA, alienating non-Spanish speaking players from the program, and sending many of them to the Galaxy’s youth programs.
Christina Belda, spokeswoman for the Chivas USA said the team will do no more interviews regarding the allegations or the lawsuit and refused to comment on the allegations.
According to the Chivas USA 2012 and 2013 rosters, since Vergara took over ownership towards the end of the 2012 season, the number of non-Mexican players and staff was cut by more than two-thirds.
But the public numbers are more telling. This season the Galaxy is drawing some 21,000 fans to their games at the Subhub Center on the campus of California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif., which is some 10 miles south of downtown Los Angeles and has a seating capacity of 27,000. Chivas USA, which also shares the facility, is drawing less than half of that. Team observers explain the dismal attendance as more geographic where the stadium is not in a heavily populated Mexican community making it difficult and cost prohibitive for their target fan base. According to the 2010 Census however, Latinos make up some 40 percent of the Carson population.
Then there has been Chivas USA’s dismal record of 7-18-9 in 2012, followed by this season's 4-13-5 ledger through Aug.8.
The position of MLS is guarded because of the pending litigation but there have been no public statements made by league officials condemning or even expressing concern for the mere appearance of discrimination.
“We are well aware of the allegations made by ex-players and employees of Chivas USA,” said Dan Courtemanche, Executive Vice President, Communications for Major League Soccer. “As to the specifics, it would not be appropriate for us to say anything more when the litigation is ongoing.”
Courtemanche pointed out that Chivas USA is comprised of players from 15 countries.
Although there are millions of young soccer players around the country, professional soccer continues to struggle to gain a foothold in the American psyche leaving some to wonder whether and a team philosophy that emphasizes a foreign language being spoken or preferential treatment for players, other than or excluding Americans, may ultimately continue the struggle for soccer in the U.S.
Mike Woitalla, executive editor, Soccer America magazine, doesn’t think so.
Woitalla says it is not uncommon for teams to develop an identity based on successful models found in other parts of the world.
“We’ve always tried to figure out what kind of style we want to play, European, Brazilian, or whatever,” Woitalla said.
He finds nothing egregious about the allegations against Chivas USA, in fact, he finds it potentially rewarding for Mexican children who have been kept out of mainstream, soccer because of the expense typically involved with team membership and travelling.
“What the Chivas did here in developing this environment is an accepted practice in Mexico but they didn’t do their homework, because we don’t do and say things like that here,” Woitalla said.